When a Story Goes Terribly Wrong

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DEMAND FOR ACTION: For more than a week, the Pentagon didn't complain about the Newsweek allegation of Koran abuse until protests, like this one in Bombay, began to spread throughout the Islamic world

Journalists strive to be influential. But there can't be many who would hope to affect events the way Newsweek has in Afghanistan. The anti-American street protests that erupted there earlier this month—after the magazine reported that a Pentagon investigation would support claims that guards at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet—left as many as 17 dead and scores injured.

As it turned out, Muslim sensibilities and the U.S.'s image were not the only casualties. Even after retracting the Koran claim, Newsweek found itself in the center of the storm. In a note to the magazine's readers last week, editor Mark Whitaker said the report had been based on information from "a knowledgeable U.S. government source."

But, he went on, that source was no longer certain that he had read about the alleged incident in the still unreleased Pentagon report.

As Whitaker explained, the source now said that "it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts."

The retraction set off a firestorm in the blogosphere and on talk radio. The Bush Administration piled on too. White House press secretary Scott McClellan urged the magazine to help undo the damage to the U.S.'s image by pointing out ways in which "our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care." Newsweek wasn't the only media outlet feeling the heat. By inevitable extension, journalism in general was back under a shadow, its reputation already scuffed by a series of incidents, including the Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times, the fall of Jack Kelley at USA Today, the dubious National Guard memos at CBS, Newsweek's use of a doctored photo of Martha Stewart on its cover, and CNN and TIME's 1998 retraction of the "Tailwind" story that claimed the U.S. had used nerve gas during a 1970 commando mission in Laos.

As he made the penitential rounds of radio, television and print interviews to acknowledge Newsweek's error, Whitaker initially insisted that journalistic standards had been maintained throughout the affair. "You can be professional in your reporting and still make mistakes," he told the Washington Post. "Everyone here did the right thing." He later told TIME, however, that "our safety net on this particular story was not strong enough, and we're taking steps to strengthen our net across the magazine."

Here's how the story unfolded. The inflammatory reference to the alleged toilet incident amounted to only a few words in an 11-sentence item in Newsweek's front-of-the-book "Periscope" section, in the issue that hit newsstands May 2. For more than two years, other news outlets had reported Guantanamo detainees' claims that U.S. guards had thrown the Koran to the floor and even tossed it into a latrine. But the Newsweek item went further by asserting that a Pentagon report would substantiate the alleged toilet incident as well as another in which a prisoner was led around on a dog leash.

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